Friday, August 13, 2010
IN MY OPINION (Column)
Two Court Rulings Raise Questions About Attorney General
By JON COUPAL
Two recent court decisions raise serious questions about Attorney General Jerry Brown’s ability to be fair and impartial in matters of great importance to all Californians.
Most Californians are aware that the attorney general is the state’s “top cop” as well as lawyer. The expressed constitutional duty of the attorney general is to ensure that the laws of the state are uniformly and adequately enforced. He represents the people of California in cases before both state and federal courts. Among the myriad of less well known responsibilities is that the AG is responsible for drafting a nonpartisan title and summary for initiative measures that qualify for the ballot.
Additionally, the attorney general establishes and operates programs to protect Californians from fraudulent, unfair, and illegal activities that victimize consumers. Voters, who are consumers of information, may find this last duty ironic in that within the last week, Superior Court judges in Sacramento, in two separate cases, found that the AG prepared “false” and “misleading” summaries for Propositions 23 and 25.
For both propositions, both judges were compelled to change language from the AG that was clearly designed to influence voters to oppose Proposition 23, the California Jobs Act, and to support Proposition 25 that would make it easier to pass a budget and raise taxes.
Writing an evenhanded ballot description of Proposition 23, which would delay implementation of California’s unique “go it alone” greenhouse gas emission standards until unemployment drops to 5.5 percent, or Proposition 25 which lowers the vote to needed to pass a state budget as well as opening the door to higher taxes with a simple majority vote, should have been a straightforward process. The Legislative Analyst Office provides clear, concise language describing what these initiatives do and, in the past, these analyses and others have been a guide to attorney generals in preparing fair language that voters can easily understand. But here, Jerry Brown went out of his way to use language so one-sided that the courts described it as “false,” “misleading” and “prejudicial.”
Jerry Brown is a graduate of Yale Law School and has passed the California Bar exam. As a lawyer, he should be well aware of the ethical standards required of the profession. Violations of professional responsibility include “conflict of interest,” which occurs when an attorney’s ability is “materially limited by their loyalty to another client, personal relationship, or other reasons.”
In this case, Brown has voiced his strong opposition to Proposition 23 and has now let his personal views influence his professional judgment. And in the case of Proposition 25, it is hard to call his providing a falsely flattering ballot summary a coincidence, when the primary sponsors of Proposition 25 are the public employee unions that are also the biggest backers of Brown’s campaign for governor.
Make no mistake. If Jerry Brown, as a private person or as a gubernatorial candidate, desired to sign a ballot argument for or against a particular measure, he could do so. And that argument would surely be a one-sided piece of political advocacy. There is nothing wrong with that.
But in his constitutional role as AG, he has a separate and distinct duty to his client, the People of California, to prepare a fair and impartial title and summary devoid of advocacy, for or against. Two different judges last week found that he violated that duty. For a person seeking the highest office in the state, that of governor, such lapses in judgment are cause for concern.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company